There were few technical glitches but also few successful sign-ups for health coverage under the Affordable Care Act at enrollment events around Miami-Dade County on Saturday, organizers said.
“This was more about educating consumers and getting them ready to sign up before the deadline [on Feb. 15],” said Milton Vazquez, an organizer for Enroll America, a national nonprofit that advocates for people to obtain coverage under the health law.
Saturday marked the first day consumers could sign up for subsidized health insurance under the law better known as Obamacare.
At an appearance in Virginia on Saturday, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said that 23,000 people around the country had submitted an application by 9 a.m.
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HHS has set a national target of 9.1 million enrollees for 2015. There are currently 7.1 million people enrolled around the country.
Last year's roll-out of healthcare.gov was a disaster, as the website froze and crashed when consumers tried to log on.
This year, things appear to be running smoothly, if slowly.
"We're trying to at least get people into the system today so we can keep signing them up during the enrollment period," said Vazquez during an event Enroll America helped organize Saturday at Palmetto General Hospital in Hialeah.
Federally licensed "navigators" and other assisters staffed 13 tables in a converted conference room at the hospital, answering questions from consumers and helping them pick from among the more than 90 health plans being offered in Miami-Dade County.
Luis Calzadilla, 60, of Hialeah was at the Palmetto hospital event with his wife Carmenza, 58. Calzadilla was offered insurance through his job at a civil engineering firm but said he couldn’t afford the premiums — and besides, the plan didn’t cover Carmenza.
He attended the event, he said, “because it’s too confusing for me to go onto the website and look at all the different options.”
With help from a navigator, Calzadilla said he picked out a Humana plan that will cover both him and his wife for about $1,600 per month, though they’ll only pay $800 thanks to a subsidy from the government.
“And we’ll be able to keep the physicians we were visiting,” Calzadilla added.
He didn’t sign up for the plan yet but says he will by the weekend.
“I’m very, very happy and very, very relieved,” he said.
Five of the 17 people who came to the Palmetto hospital signed up for coverage, organizers said. The event was held primarily for Spanish speakers.
"It's really important to walk customers through the process in their language of preference," said Maura Shiffman of the Health Council of South Florida, which had several navigators on site.
Staffers at a different event at the North Shore Medical Center reported signing up three out of 13 customers.
“It wasn’t a big crowd but the people who came left happy,” said Nathalie Milias, a navigator for the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida. Milias said those who did not sign up were able to schedule follow-up appointments.
Problems that arose during the day had less to do with technology and more with consumers’ lack of preparation.
More than half of the 150 people who came to an enrollment event sponsored by the Epilepsy Foundation in Pembroke Pines did not have the identification or paperwork needed to sign up, said Franco Ripple, a spokesman for the foundation.
And some organizers admitted they were disappointed by the generally low turnout.
“It was nothing in comparison to what we saw last year,” said Tiffani Helberg, a spokeswoman for Community Health of South Florida, a nonprofit that held enrollment events at two of its clinics in Homestead and Cutler Bay.
Helberg said 31 people enrolled at those events, mainly Hispanics and Haitians. Both groups have been points of emphasis for healthcare advocates in South Florida this year.
“I hope people will take advantage of the opportunity to get healthcare,” Helberg said. “There’s still plenty of time.”
Enrollment runs through Feb. 15. Those who sign up by the 15th of each month will receive coverage starting the following month. For example, Dec. 15 is the deadline to sign up for coverage that starts Jan. 1.
Eligible consumers who fail to sign up before Feb. 15will face financial penalties.
Some consumers in Florida said they were frustrated by their experience on the first day but remain optimistic that they can find affordable coverage.
Libia Coronel, 57, of North Miami Beach tried to sign up online last year but was frustrated by logistical hurdles. She's never had insurance before and only visits the doctor on yearly trips to her native Ecuador. "Thank god I'm healthy," she said.
She spent four hours with navigators at the Palmetto event without being able to enroll. "Slow internet, slow computer, slow everything," Coronel said.
She said she plans to make a follow-up appointment.
Most of the people who attended today’s events were first-time Obamacare customers, organizers said.
People who signed up last year will be automatically re-enrolled in their old plans if they do not pick a new one. But they may not pay what they did last year.
Raul Anyosa, 44, of Miami Springs said he signed up last year for a Preferred Medical plan that only required $5 co-pays for doctor visits and other services. His government subsidy covered the premium.
But this year, he said, navigators told him his plan had changed: he now owes $350 in premiums per month. He said he’s considering switching plans.
And some consumers left completely empty-handed.
Dolores Paz, a 58-year-old housekeeper from Miami, was turned away from the Palmetto event without signing up after a long discussion with navigators.
Her income is too high for Medicaid but too low to make her eligible for subsidies under the ACA. The health law and a subsequent Supreme Court ruling gave states the option of expanding Medicaid eligibility to people like Paz.
Florida was one of 21 states that chose not to.
That means Paz will have to keep paying $406 a month for the private insurance she said she can barely afford.
"It's ridiculous," Paz said.
Marsha Halper and C.M. Guerrero contributed reporting to this story.
Follow @MHhealth for health news from South Florida and around the nation.
This article was produced in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.